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An artist's conception of the MERS virus.

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Pasteur Institutes acknowledge unauthorized import of MERS samples on a flight from Seoul to Paris

A researcher from the Pasteur Institute Korea (IPK) in Seoul brought samples taken during the country's outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) on an intercontinental flight last year without the appropriate paperwork, hoping to get them studied at the Pasteur Institute (IP) in Paris. Both institutes have acknowledged the incident, which IP says was a breach in French biosafety protocol. But both say the trip never put anyone in danger, because the samples had undergone a treatment that would have killed any living virus.

The story was first reported earlier this month by English-speaking newspaper The Korea Times, which wrote that a researcher from IPK had transported samples containing the MERS virus on a Korean Air flight from Seoul to Paris on 11 October 2015—a few months after a MERS epidemic outbreak that sickened 186 people and killed 38 in South Korea. IPK “committed serious biosecurity breaches, which could have resulted in the loss of many lives, and tried to cover it up,” the newspaper alleged.

In a statement issued today, IPK sought to downplay the issue. A review conducted with IPK’s safety committee has shown that the samples were treated with glutaraldehyde fixative, a standard virus inactivation protocol, the statement says; as a result, they were noninfectious and did not need any special approval from the airline to be taken onto the flight. (The samples traveled in the aircraft's baggage hold, the institute also says, not in the researcher’s cabin luggage, as The Korea Times claimed.)

IP in Paris—which is separate from 33 other Pasteur Institutes around the world—also says the newspaper’s story is inaccurate and says emails quoted in the piece that were attributed to IP President Christian Bréchot were not authentic. In a phone interview with ScienceInsider, Bréchot admitted that the import broke biosecurity rules, however, and that the samples were destroyed after arrival for that reason.

We did not even open the box. We do not know if the samples were infected in the first place, and even if they were, the cells were inactivated anyway.

Christian Bréchot, Pasteur Institute

According to email correspondence with the incriminated IPK scientist, which ScienceInsider has seen, IP only found out about the samples after they landed in the research unit of Félix Rey, the head of IP's structural virology lab. “I forgot to mention … that I brought 3 Vero cell pellets that has [sic] been inactivated after infection with environmental samples collected from MERS units,” the IPK researcher wrote in an email to Rey on 16 October, after a meeting in Paris. (Vero cells are isolated from monkey's kidneys and can be used in the lab as host cells to study the growth of viruses.) The scientist asked Rey's team to “reconfirm the presence of viruses via [electron microscopy] analysis.” The researcher did not respond to an email request, and ScienceInsider was not able to confirm whether she had indeed sent this message.

A week later, Rey wrote back that his research unit could not receive and handle the samples because they came without approval from France's National Agency for Medicines and Health Products Safety, which regulates the production, use, transport, import, and export of so-called highly pathogenic microorganisms and toxins (MOTs). “I regret to inform you that the microscopy platform cannot treat this sample because, even if the samples are inactivated, MERS coronavirus is classified as MOT and as such, requires a special procedure to import the samples,” Rey wrote on 23 October. “I also have to inform you that specialised personnel of Institut Pasteur has by now destroyed those samples.”

“We did not even open the box,” Bréchot says. “We do not know if the samples were infected in the first place, and even if they were, the cells were inactivated anyway.” 

The Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Seoul is currently investigating the case at IPK’s request. "We are verifying whether IPK violated the High-Risk Pathogens safety management regulation in Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act,” Haeng Seop Shin, deputy director of CDC's Division of Biosafety Evaluation and Control, wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. IPK is making all relevant documents available for the inquiry, such as lab log books and minutes of internal committee meetings, says Roberto Bruzzone, IPK’s interim CEO since March, who was a board member of the institute at the time the transfer happened.

IPK is a private, nonprofit health research organization. It was set up in 2004 in collaboration with IP in Paris, the Korean research ministry, and Geongyi province.

With reporting by Mark Zastrow in Seoul.